Yesterday, the most unproductive Congress is history managed to pass a consumer cell phone unlocking bill, and President Obama has agreed to sign it into law. On the surface, a wonky intellectual property bill that allows consumers to switch carriers is, relatively speaking, a minor political achievement.
But the bill’s passage could prove to be an important event in the history of democracy. The bill began as a surprisingly viral petition on the White House’s experimental direct action website, WeThePeople. Few people thought the petition would catch on, let alone convince the White House to officially support a law to allow unlocking.
But, the petition gave the tech policy nerds in the Administration the political cover they needed to support a bill.
“A whole generation worth of voters have grown up with cell phones and understand what it means to unlock their devices. So when the Librarian of Congress removed the unlocking exemption, people reacted strongly,” wrote petition’s author, Sina Khanifar.
“To me, the petition was an easy way for them to vent their frustration, but at the same time it gave an easy avenue for the Obama administration to respond,” Khanifar wrote. “And that response was relatively uncomplicated: The administration agreed that unlocking is a consumer right and should be legal.”
Even after the President came out in support of the bill, significant opposition from well-financed telecommunication lobbies managed to delay and water down the bill in Congress. But, Khanifar’s co-conspirator, Derek Khanna, managed to keep the pressure on with some widely read opinion pieces. His piece in the Atlantic, “The Most Ridiculous Law of 2013” snagged 59,000 Facebook likes.
If the telecom lobbyists had had their way, the new unlocking bill would never have existed. But they faced significant public and political opposition on this issue.
“This law will protect consumer choice by allowing flexibility when it comes to choosing a wireless carrier. This is something that Americans have been asking for,” said House Judiciary Chairman Bob Goodlatte (R-VA), in a statement. (Goodlatte was the sponsor of the original House version of the unlocking bill.)
It’s always been an open question when the Internet would begin to shape public policy in a significant way. Internet activists managed to defeat the wildly unpopular Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) with a mass web blackout. But, defeating a bill is wholly different, and arguably easier, than getting one passed — especially in a Congress as divided along party lines as the current one.
The passage of the unlocking bill is a significant win for those who believe the Internet can do good things for representative democracy. It’s nice to have some good news about our government once in a while.